Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Return to Vienna (3)

We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, a vast, mind-numbing palace of art, conceived in a lavish style of overblown magnificence I can only call Imperial Viennese. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. But inside it's comfortable and un-cathedral-like, and above all warm after the glacial wind outside, and it's all on a reasonably human scale, as though the architects insisted that man should be the measure of all things.

A massive central hall is open to the domed ceiling three storeys above, painted with an extraordinary trompe l'oeil called The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, where Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael and others and their models and so on are seen from below as though in a sort of heaven. (And very cleverly painted so that decency is preserved and, crick your neck as you may, you can't see up their togas or tunics.) This hall is flanked by white marble stairs wide enough for at least six crinolines abreast: ultramarine and white marble columns support the arches on which the upper floors rest. The spandrels (the triangular-ish spaces between the vertical columns and the tops of the arches) have been decorated by Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst and a third Viennese artist called Franz Matsch to illustrate the history of art. Ancient Egyptian art, as accounted for below, appears to have appealed particularly to Gustav Klimt.

There are about three British paintings among the hundreds of Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and Spanish masters. It doesn't matter. We've learnt the hard way that the more paintings you try to take in, in huge collections like this one, the less they begin to mean. We reach saturation point very early, so we've come with a specific intention: we only want to see the Brueghels and the Vermeers.

It turns out that there's only one Vermeer, The Artist's Studio. It's much bigger than we expected it to be. There doesn't appear to be any restriction at all on taking photographs, so here it is:

As the for Brueghels, they too are huge, much bigger than expected. All the famous images are here, Winter Sports, Hunters in the Snow, Children's Games, The Tower of Babel. And the Peasant Wedding, the one where there's an unexplained extra leg underneath the tray (actually a door taken off its hinges) from which they're serving what looks like porridge. Is this Brueghel's joke? I buy a T-shirt for my son Andrew with the Tower of Babel printed on it. It seems very suitable for one whose business is largely localisation, the trade term for commercial translation.

All Vermeered and be-Breugheled up, we go for lunch in the restaurant. I have goulash followed by palatschinken, sweet pancakes with apricot jam. (It is Shrove Tuesday, after all.) On the next table are three Japanese. They have no German and very little English. They are clearly tempted by the obscenely mouth-watering display of confectionery, Mozart bombe, gebackener Topfentorte, Klimt Torte. The waiter asks them what they would like. My localisation experts advise me that in Japanese all words end either with a vowel or with the letter N. Assuming that English must be the same, our neighbours point and say 'Cakie'.

Cakie? the waiter asks, uncertain that he's heard right. They nod enthusiastically. Wouldn't you?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Return to Vienna (2)

You mustn't hold it against me, this excessively romantic cast of mind. I couldn't rid myself of it, even if I wanted to. I know, you're all so pragmatic and down-to-earth, so sensible and clear-visioned, you've got your feet so firmly fixed on the ground that the following story may mean nothing to you. In fact, if I were you I should stop reading right now and do something sensible, like make a Yorkshire pudding, clean out the hamsters, pay the electricity bill and get your calceolarias in. Right? You've been warned...

* * *

My first thought after leaving school at 18 was to get myself to Vienna to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven. His music had irradiated me, thrilled me, sent shivers down my adolescent spine, excited me to a world-view of limitless, Olympian joy. He had to be thanked. So I and a particularly complaisant friend set off hitch-hiking to Vienna. (A truncated version of this saga appears in the very earliest Lydian Airs posts, back in 2008. My friend, whose real name was Martin, is called George in that account, I don't know why. And as for 'Adèle', her real name was Gudrun.)

According to my information at the time Beethoven (d.1827) and Schubert (d.1828) lay side by side in a little park in the 18th district of Vienna. We found them easily, two elongated mounds with lichen-grown, obelisk-like headstones. On Schubert's headstone there was his name and a lyre. On Beethoven's there was his name and the figure of a butterfly carved into the stone. My information (a biography of Beethoven by Marion Scott) interpreted this butterfly as a symbol of freedom. I bowed the grateful knee. And touched my forelock respectfully to Schubert, whose music I loved too, but not with the same ardour that I felt for the Master. Duty done, we came home.

Then some years later I read, to my horror, that in 1874 the Vienna city council had opened a new municipal cemetery two or three miles out of town, the Zentral Friedhof, where the great and good, present and past, as well as the humble of Vienna would henceforth be buried. To this end they dug up Beethoven and Schubert from their little private graveyard and transferred what remained of their remains to new resting places with their fellow musicians. The quiet graves beside which I had paid homage had been empty. Schubert's lyre hardly respected the truth, and Beethoven's butterfly had flown.

So last week in Vienna, in fact on my birthday, and with J. as complaisant as my friend Martin had been, I put the record straight. I bought two red roses from a flower stall in the city centre, we took a taxi to the Zentral Friedhof, found the true graves and I laid a rose on each.

We came back to the city centre by one of the characteristic Viennese red and white trams. There were no means that we could find for buying tickets, so I'm afraid we bilked the fare. But next day we bought a book of 10 public transport tickets, valid equally for any journey by tram, bus or underground. We didn't use them all, so I suppose our consciences are clear.

And I feel I've discharged my obligations, even if it took me half a century to do so.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Return to Vienna (1)

I hadn't been back to Vienna for 51 years. With the utmost generosity J. took me there for a long weekend to mark my birthday. What happened will probably occupy blog posts for weeks. For now, the events of those crowded and climactic few days were encompassed - well, more or less - on the Do Not Disturb card the hotel invited us to display outside our door each morning. (If we weren't ready for the chambermaids, that is: for the record, there was an alternative card which read Please Clean My Room.)


I am reading a mystery novel
I am collecting my thoughts
I am contemplating my future
I am remembering things past
I am so happy to be in my room
I am trying to concentrate
I am enjoying a pastry
I am being inspired by a book
I am listening to music
I am planning my evening out
I am watching a great film
I am thinking about a career change
I am reflecting on my decisions
I am sitting in the lotus position
I am tasting a glass of wine
I am enjoying coffee
I am stimulating my curiosity
I am writing a love letter
I am dreaming of a bright tomorrow

Friday, 10 February 2012


For the last ten days it has been bitterly cold with icy winds keeping temperatures down well below zero (-9 is our record and it's much colder elsewhere) despite bright day-long sunshine. Typical winter anticyclone weather, no suggestion at all of the straw hats, shorts and T-shirts generally associated with the south of France. Our friend A. came round last night, complaining about the draughts in his house. Chief culprit was the cat-flap. The wind had been so strong, with gale force gusts, that it just blew the cat-flap open and the Arctic blast swooshed through the house freezing everything in its path, especially A.'s and Mrs A.'s ankles. A recent gust was the last straw, A. told us: intolerant of such things sent to try us, he aimed a kick at the cat-flap. It shattered, leaving a hole through which the polar winds blew in their icy fury.

I believe a new cat-flap is on the A. household shopping list, but meantime the hole has been securely patched, probably with the sort of cast-iron plates they used to make Dreadnoughts out of. The result seems to be that A.'s cats are now put out last thing at night, and spend all night scritching and scratching at the windows and mewing to get in. So no one's a winner.

We have no choice. Our cat Tonip is too thick to understand how cat-flaps work, so ours is permanently propped open with a couple of clothes pegs.

I wondered recently what the arrangement was at Wells cathedral. Cat-flaps aren't a thing one readily associates with cathedrals. The question arose because on our UK travels last autumn we spent an hour or two in Wells, mostly in the cathedral. There were many remarkable sights to be seen, none more notable than the main altar in the nave, where, oblivious of the bustling ecclesiastical activity about it, a cat was fast asleep on the richly-worked altar cloth.

At the cathedral reception desk we asked about the cat. We learnt that his name was Louis, he was the cathedral cat, and that the minor canon (or some such title) on duty had to put him out at night. No cat-flap, then: does Louis also spend cold nights scratching at the stained-glass windows, mewing to be allowed in?

In view of the expression 'poor as a church mouse' I wanted to ask if a diet of cathedral mice was any richer. Louis certainly looked sleek and well-fed. But a queue was gathering behind us and we had a plane to catch at Bristol, so the question remains unanswered.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Bagpipes in the boot

My friend R. asked me today if I'd ever played the bagpipes. I think he was quite surprised when I said yes, I had.

Three months after starting teaching in Southampton, now many years ago, I had an unexpected tax refund. There seemed at the time nothing more prudent nor praiseworthy than to spend this windfall, about £40, on a set of bagpipes. So I did, and spent several months thereafter, mostly in the school hall after the kids had gone home, wrestling with the beastly things. Eventually I beat them into submission, and even the long-suffering school cleaners remarked on how I had improved.

Using mostly recorder fingering I mastered various pipe tunes, Bonnie Dundee, The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill, The Brown Bear and curiously named dances like Mrs Farquharson's Farewell to Towcester. In my vanity I used to keep these pipes in the boot of my car, at that time an MG Magnette, so that it would be work of a moment to take them out and give them a blow to jolly up any party I might be invited to.

Pride went before the inevitable fall. One sub-zero January night, at a party in Totton, an area of Southampton not known for its devotion to the Great Highland Bagpipe, at about 2am, just as things were livening up, my hosts invited me to blow up a reel or two and give the party - and the neighbours - no end of a treat. Out I went into the wintry night to fetch my £40-worth from the boot. (If you're reading this in the USA, and I hope you are, 'boot' means 'trunk'.) They were strangely, inexplicably, rigid. With horror I realised what had happened: naturally prey to interior condensation with all that blowing, they were frozen. Yes, frozen stiff. Lifting them out was like manipulating a dead miniature giraffe as rigor mortis sets in.

I took them inside to warm them. Attempting to ease the chanter out of the stock (see diagram above) before it had properly thawed, I split it open along the grain of the wood.

I never played them again. Later I took the chanter to a craftsman in wood for repair. He made an excellent job of the outside. You wouldn't have known there had been any damage. But it isn't the outside that matters: it's the perfect conical bore of the inside that guarantees the accuracy of the bagpipe scale. Inside the chanter my craftsman friend had, all unknowing, left little dowels and splints, globs of glue and lumps of plastic wood. The people of Totton were spared.

* * *

One reason why I left the blogosphere temporarily last autumn, absenting myself a good bit longer than I expected, was to deny myself the pleasure of posting two or three times a week when I should instead have been devoting my time to the composition of a piano trio. This Trio, a 25-minute work for piano, violin and cello, is now finished and the parts have been sent off to the musicians who are due to give it its first performance here in France on August 18th. (You can find details here: click on 'Concerts 2012'.)

It would be a delight to see any blog-friends, or indeed anyone at all, at this concert, if you happen to be planning summer holidays just now, maybe with the south of France in mind. No bagpipes, I promise.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Struck by lightning

Reading Graham Robb's The Discovery of France (a must-read for people who think they've already done so by living here) I come across the origin of that extraordinary expression The Postilion Has Been Struck By Lightning.

I discover that a certain Madame de Genlis in 1799 wrote a French-German phrase-book called Traveller's Manual for French Persons in Germany and German Persons in France. Clearly horse-drawn travel was not without risk. Here are a few excerpts:

Postilion, this horse is worthless. It is restive. It is skittish. I am decidedly loath to take it.

Postilion, can one place a harp in its carrying-case on the luggage rack?

What kind of road is it? It is strewn with rocks.

Postilion, I believe that the wheels are on fire. Please look and see.

Postilion, a man has just climbed on to the back of the coach. Make him get down.

Postilion, allow this poor man to climb on to the seat. He is so tired! Leave him alone. He is an old man!

Postilion, the king-pin has fallen out. The suspension has snapped.

The coach has overturned. The horses have just collapsed.

Is anyone hurt? No, thank God. The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.

The postilion has fainted. Gently remove the postilion from beneath the horse.

There is a large lump on his head. Should we not apply a coin to the lump in order to flatten it?

Poor man! Be assured I sympathize with your suffering.

* * *

And while I'm on the subject, I remember hearing many years ago about a certain none-too-literate policeman in the little town of Forres, in Morayshire, which wasn't far from where we used to live. A horse had collapsed and died in Urquhart (pronounced something like 'erkut') Street. The policeman arrived, took out his notebook and pencil and began his report. The spelling of 'Urquhart' was quite beyond him. Not without resource, he directed the crowd of bystanders to drag the dead horse round the corner into the High Street.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Head over heels

Reading the harrowing account of the death of Shelley (drowned at the age of 29 off the coast of Italy in 1822: body recovered 8 days later, burnt on a funeral pyre on the beach), what struck me as the most horrific detail in the whole gruesome saga was the attitude of Byron. Byron, who was present at the cremation, asked Shelley's friend Trelawney to save the top half of the skull for him. Trelawney, suspecting that Byron wanted to use it as a drinking cup, to his credit refused.

I can't say I've ever drunk out of a skull and I've no regrets about it. But I wouldn't mind being able to say with truth that I had, at some time or other in an uneventful life speckled by occasional excesses, drunk champagne out of a lady's shoe. Maybe that's something to come. I understand from those who know that the important thing in these matters is that the shoe in question need not be high-heeled but should not be open-toed.

Happy February!